What Makes a Brazilian Movie?

In the gone 1960s and 1970s—hard and military times for any country located in South America—Glauber Rocha was a man with radical ideas, to the point of bothering both the right and left wing. He became the mentor of a group of young artists and thinkers by taking his cameras out of uptight and romantic studio productions and pointing them to the minds, hearts, bodies and guts of regular people and their daily lives, creating a movement called Cinema Novo (New Cinema).

He pointed his lenses to the heartbeat of Brazilian society, raw as it is, establishing a new way of looking at the country and the people in it. He said “cinema is an international form of art and a modern moviemaker should be able to make movies everywhere.” He was taken as a model of modern moviemaking by the next generations of Brazilian directors, like Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles.

So what does it take for a movie to be called Brazilian? To be Portuguese-spoken, to take place at the Amazon, to show local traditions, Carnival, samba schools, favelas, soccer games, breathless beaches and astonishingly beautiful women (or the other way around), to have a Brazilian director…? Well, maybe not just that.

“If you want to be universal, start by painting your own village,” said Leo Tolstoy.

The very first time this universal-local concept fully struck me was when sitting in a São Paulo’s movie theater, following Walter Salles’ camera traveling around Dora’s living room at Rio de Janeiro, in Central Station. I realized I’d been already to a room just like that in my childhood. I was instantly taken aback by my sensorial memories and transported to my grandaunt’s place again, over 400 kms away—like tasting Proust’s madeleines.

In a more rational way, I’ve again gotten in touch with this universal-local concept, after being mesmerized by Behind the Sun. I read on the credits that Walter Salles had actually made the movie as a version of Ismail Kadaré’s book Broken April, bringing the traditional story of blood fate between families from Albania to Brazil. No wonder Tolstoy’s words are quoted by Salles in his extensive interview to Carlos Helí de Almeida for the Festival de Cinema Luso Brasileiro de Santa Maria de Feira, April 2002.

One point can’t be missed: in each movie, we are led by a boy who is true and genuine enough to go in an opposite direction, either by trying to change the fate of blood of his family in Behind the Sun, or by tracing back to the place of origin of his migratory family, as in Central Station. The way I see it, both characters are what Salles calls a way of “not trying to emphasize drama or emotion, but honestly expressing his own feelings or intuitions” in his work.

The heir of a local major bank, Walter Salles has taken his own voice by pursuing his own career (after graduating in economics) in the movies, working first in advertising, then documentaries, and later becoming a moviemaker. Salles points out that “working in advertising is a good way to learn the cinematographic grammar. There is time and money enough to experiment with equipment and to deal with distress situations.” And it was by working on a short documentary, Socorro Nobre, about the exchange of letters between a convict named Maria do Socorro and a sculptor, Frans Krajcberg, that the plot of Central Station was born.

There is a straight relation between the documentary Socorro Nobre and Central Station. The former is about people’s need of renaming themselves, to give themselves a second chance,” says Salles, “and it also shows the effect of a simple letter when it arrives to its destiny in these times of impersonal and cold midias.”

When in prison, Maria do Socorro actually used to help other inmates to write letters, and after reading in a magazine that the Polish sculptor Frans Krajcberg had lost all of his family in the Holocaust, decided to write him. From then on, they had intensively exchanged letters, one of which was presented to Walter Salles by Krajcberg. Maria do Socorro is the very first face to be seen in Central Station, and she says “my letter got wings of its own. I feel frightened when I realize of how much came out of my letter: it opened doors and saved my life. Walter Salles tells me it changed his life too.” Central Station got 28 awards, and each time Salles would call Maria do Socorro saying “girl, we’ve got one more!” This is the most-awarded Brazilian movie.

As for Vinícius de Oliveira, who plays the Josué in Central Station, he went back to Berlinale, the Berlin Film Festival, many years later with another Salles’ movie, Linha de Passe, but they were in touch in between, with the director keeping track of his school’s records.

On his movies, Walter Salles speaks mostly about second chances and the road that leads to that. This is the manner that his movies are made in. So when his most recent project, On the Road, based on Jack Kerouac’s monumental book, is finished, it might be as much a Brazilian movie as Central Station is, simply because it is universal.